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Children Are Reading As Well Today As Their Counterparts Did 10 Years Ago, Analyst Says

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Dallas--Despite negative headlines and doomsaying newspaper reports, children today are reading as well as--and in some cases better than--their counterparts did 10 years ago.

That is the conclusion of one reading expert who spoke here last week at the National Reading Conference, where the latest National Assessment of Reading was analyzed and discussed.

The analysis presented by Edward Fry, director of the Reading Center at Rutgers University and a consultant to the National Assessment of Reading committee, focused on the changes in student performance over the last decade. The data from the latest assessment were first released last April.

Since 1970, Mr. Fry said, 9-year-olds have improved their reading skills by 3.9 percent, and they have made significant gains in reference skills (4.8 percent), literal comprehension (3.9 percent), and inferential comprehension (3.5 percent).

The greatest gains were made by black 9-year-olds (9.9 percent), Mr. Fry said. And he noted that if that trend continues, black children will match white children in reading skills within 20 years.

The National Assessment of Reading, from which Mr. Fry derived those figures, was begun 10 years ago by the U.S. Office of Education to determine how well American children were reading, to measure their progress over time, and to assess the effects of Title I programs such as Head Start.

Students in the test sample were chosen as representative of the national population, and the age groups selected for the assessment (9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds) were at the point of completing their primary, intermediate, or secondary education.

The same tests were given in 1970, 1975, and 1980, Mr. Fry said, so the most recent set of results can be used to examine the changes in students' performance in the past decade.

The assessment is designed to identify how groups of students, rather than individuals, respond to reading exercises. Thus, changes in achievement can be reported by age, sex, race, geographical location, and other characteristics.

Groups whose performance remained above the 1970-71 national level in the most recent assessment were females, whites, students whose parents had some postsecondary education, and students who attended schools in affluent urban communities.

Groups whose performance remained below the 1970-71 national level were males, blacks, students whose parents have not graduated from high school, and students who attended schools in disadvantaged urban communities.

The study showed, however, that some of the groups performing below the national level made "significant gains." Nine- and 13-year-olds in the Southeast--and blacks in those age groups--all gained in inferential comprehension (gleaning from information an idea that is not specifically stated) and in reference skills (using reading to solve problems).

Significant Gains

And 9-year-olds in rural schools made significant gains in inferential comprehension, reference skills, and literal comprehension (knowing the exact meaning of a word, sentence, or paragraph).

"By achievement quartiles, the poorest readers are making the most gains, and the best readers are making the least gains," reported Mr. Fry. "The lowest quartile of each age group did better," he said, "which means that blacks in low socio-economic groups did better compared with 10 years ago."

Much of the progress, according to reading experts who analyzed the study data, can be traced to federally supported programs for the disadvantaged, changes in curricular materials and approaches, and increased access to print and electronic media for teaching and training.

"I would say that there is a strong indication that Head Start and Title I are responsible for the improvements among 9-year-olds," Mr. Fry said. "The top quartile of all three age groups is not doing as well, and at age 17, the brightest quartile is significantly down. This more or less coincides with the sat data, which has witnessed a decline in scores over the last decade."

Some reading experts attribute this decline to an increase in class size at a time of diminishing resources, to the increased demands on students' time caused by work outside the home, and to the many distractions which take students' time and attention from reading.

"It's hard to say why this has happened," said Mr. Fry, but he pointed out that "the number of solid subjects high-school students are taking these days is about one less than 10 years ago, and reading is emphasized in the primary grades but, except for remedial work, it is not taught in secondary schools.

"The assessment shows very clearly the effects of poverty and parent education--that if you go into a home where parents are educated and well-off, the kids are going to read better," he noted. "It's absolutely irrefutable. One thing is that the black middle-class kids read just as well as white middle-class kids."

So he contends, Mr. Fry said, "that the reading problems of blacks are not because they're black but because they have a low socio-economic status. Or to put it another way, they are just as amenable to education and to environmental influence as anybody else."

Referring to the National Assessment, Mr. Fry said the problem is "that it's been ignored. The data don't really show that kids aren't reading any more." The National Assessment for Educational Progress, which conducts the National Assessment of Reading, periodically surveys the achievements of a national probability sample of American students. It is funded by the National Institute of Education and is under contract with the Education Commission of the States.

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